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Flagler Delegation Discovers Varieties of School Uniform Experiences in Osceola Visit

| January 10, 2012

They're supposedly in uniform: students at Celebration School in Osceola County, where a uniform policy ostensibly prevails, displayed their colors this morning as a Flagler school delegation looked on. Click on the image for larger view. (FlaglerLive)

[See the image gallery on the delegation’s visit here.]

KISSIMMEE–Calling it a uniform is a misnomer.

What’s in effect in Osceola County schools is a stringent dress code, with numerous allowances for self-expressions—from jeans to hoodies to any-color and any-funk socks, “outerwear,” belts and shoes, including flip-flops in high school. Students are allowed to wear four different colors shirt-wise, as long as the shirt has a collar. They can wear shorts, pants, skirts, skorts or combinations with leggings that make it difficult to judge whether they’re in school or rehearsing for a musical. On a cool day, like today, elementary and middle school students at the K-8 Celebration School looked like postcards from a rainbow, not regimented subjects of a buttoned-up regime.

And enforcement is a whole other story. During two class changes at Celebration High School today, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a student with his or her shirt tucked in, though it’s one of the “uniform” policy’s requirements. And torn jeans looked still in fashion. Still, they call it all a uniform policy in action.

That’s what a delegation of a dozen Flagler County school officials discovered today in a morning-long visit at four Osceola schools: “A uniform with a lot of options,” as School Board member Trevor Tucker described it, “or you can call it a more intense dress code policy than we have now.”

I think the variety of what I’m seeing is a little surprising,” said Bob Sawyer, the dean at Matanzas High School who, throughout the morning, could be seen keenly taking mental notes of the Osceola school grounds he was visiting, the class changes, the students’ dress and posture. “I think in our mind when you think uniforms, you think same-color shirt, same-color pants. That’s not what we’re seeing here.”

The Flagler delegation’s visit to Osceola was organized ahead of the Jan. 17 school board meeting—a week from today—when the board will take an up or down vote on whether to adopt a uniform policy for next year. The board is divided on the matter, with board members Sue Dickinson and John Fischer all for uniforms, Andy Dance and Tucker opposed (because of the issue’s timing and the hardship uniforms might impose on families) and Colleen Conklin saying she’s keeping an open mind, though she’s mostly in favor. She’s been looking for reasons not to go with uniforms. What she heard today, listening to teachers, administrators and students, were lessons on how to implement the policy: with a lot of advance PR, patience and the knowledge that, in time (and relatively fast), opposition to uniforms fades and parents and students go along, particularly when so much flexibility is built into the new requirement.

Lauren Grulich, a 7th grader at Celebration School, had been at a private school before, where the uniform policy was strictly uniforms: no variations on colors. “I actually like it a lot better here,” she says. “You can still, like, accessorize and stuff, and a lot of girls do it. It’s not too bad.”  A high school girl, formerly from England—where the uniform requirement was also stringent—echoed the same thoughts as she and three fellow-students met with half the Flagler delegation later in the morning—with their principal, assistant principal, teachers and an Osceola school board member in the room: a freewheeling discussion, it wasn’t. As the student left, she showed another way to accessorize: all over her book-bag, which sported a defiant Che Guevara portrait.

“No matter how you limit the choices, they still find a way to individualize,” Celebration High School Principal Laura Rhinehart said. The district has loosened rather than tightened the policy since its implementation four years ago, as when it eliminated the requirement for dark-only denims, to allow any-blue denim. It has also kept clear of addressing the outerwear issue, even though it’s clearly a way for students to make an end-run around the policy. And the district has created various outs, such as t-shirt days (when students can wear the school’s t-shirt), or rewards that allow a student not to wear uniform-compliant clothes, or dress-down days.

Elementary school students look more prim and uniformed, their colors generally more monochromed than daring, whether it’s inner or outerwear. And Conklin suggested that if the visit had been organized on a warmer day, there would have likely been far fewer displays of alternative colors. Then again,

The Flagler delegation gathered at dawn in the parking lot of the county courthouse, then split into two vans. Each group would hit two different schools before reconvening for lunch at B.J.’s Brewhouse in Kissimmee to hear one final pitch from Osceola school officials and be treated to lunch by them. The visit was shadowed—and cheered—by Jay Wheeler, an Osceola County school board member who champions uniforms and who traveled to Flagler to make his own pitch to a skeptical public in early December.

Only Conklin and Tucker were part of the delegation to Osceola, which also included Superintendent Janet Valentine and three school principals—Chris Pryor of Matanzas High School,  Vernon Orndorff of Indian Trails Middle, and Stephen Hinson of Belle Terre Elementary.

They came to Osceola acknowledging that the dress code is not a major issue or a major concern in the schools, as the district’s own data proves. The school uniform initiative became one only because one school board member, John Fischer, made it so: it’s his pet project. It costs the school board nothing to discuss or implement, but has the potential of making board members look decisive on at least one issue they can fully control, as opposed to innumerable financial and curricular issues to which they’ve had to submit in financially strapped times. What’s clear is that the principals and their staff themselves would not have initiated the drive for uniforms, though a survey of school staffers show them supporting  uniforms by upwards of 70 percent.

The principals and their assistants also came to Osceola knowing they would not be making the final decision—though they would have influence in defining how the policy is written, and how it is enforced. In Osceola, the principals discovered that enforcement is not only individualized according to the personality of each school principal, but according to the personality of each teacher. One Osceola teacher—Betsy Larson, who says she’s been “called the dress-code Nazi on occasion”—says she was opposed to the uniform policy originally. She favors student creativity. But, she said, “I don’t like looking at thigh-high skirts and butts,” and makes it known to her students who break the code.

Others can be so much more lenient that they get phone calls from their colleagues, who deal with the leniency when the student gets to their classroom. And teachers described the innumerable times when students called out on not wearing an appropriate shirt merely rumbled through their backpack and produced the required garment. In other words, they know what they have to wear, and they know that playing the odds will often favor their liberties, as opposed to the dress code, however lenient—or stringent.

But when Pryor, the Matanzas High principal, asked one of the key questions of the day to a group of teachers, he did not get a straight answer: “I’m constantly looking at ways to improve my school, so is this going to help me with student achievement?” Pryor asked.

“It can’t hurt,” was the best a teacher could respond. “It absolutely can’t hurt. Can I guarantee success? No.”

Unlike the Osceola school district, Flagler’s has been a straight-A district for the past four years, with most of its schools scoring A’s and the high schools missing it by whiskers. There is no overt need, as there supposedly was in Osceola four years ago, to impose uniforms, at least not for academic or safety reasons. Osceola did it, Wheeler (the Osceola school board member) said, to address a chronic problem: gangs and gang recruitment, an issue that, according to Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming, doesn’t exist in Flagler County except as a “juvenile,” minor irritant involving perhaps 75 people.

“I don’t know if there is a need,” Tucker said during lunch, after visiting the schools. “That’s the question: is there a need?” Most parents he talks to, he said, are indifferent one way or the other. “I’m still up in the air. I’ve been pondering this question for I don’t know—I see both sides of the issue. If it promotes safety, why not do it. But if it promotes hardship, why do it?”

The hardship question was a central concern for the two Flagler board members. What they found on that score was also double-edged. Each school has developed a special sort of clothing shop where the uniform-compliant clothes are free for the taking. The schools Flagler officials visited today have huge minority and low-income populations, and even Celebration School, located in the more affluent part of Osceola, was redistricted so that its 1,330 students include 140 who are considered homeless: they live in a nearby hotel that serves essentially as a subsidized homeless shelter. But the school’s “Spirit Closet” has taken care of all needs. Variations on that closet appear at other schools. The clothes are either donated by former students and families or bought by the schools, especially at Celebration High School.

The money is from a combination of sources that include small amounts of school discretionary funds (“a few thousand dollars,” says Celebration High principal Laura Rhinehart), a small amount of federal funds designated as supplements for homeless causes, and a very large portion from a local non-profit foundation that pours money into education. Celebration, remember, is originally a Disney product, with Disney’s name and reputation still attached to it even as the company has distanced itself from the schools after building them. (“People value education, that’s the pixie dust that we have,” says Celebration School Principal Rene Clayton).

Need may not be as pronounced as uniform opponents claim. At one of the elementary schools the delegation visited, just 10 students out of 850 had a need for entirely donated uniforms, Tucker said.

“If you promote this as a cost issue for parents in a bad economy, this is how you’re going to get acceptance,” says Nona Noel, an elementary school guidance counselor at Celebration School. “I get parents coming in my office all the time saying I’m really glad we don’t have to buy all the clothes we used to buy. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the cost. That wasn;t really promoted when it was implemented, here, but that was the result.”

In the end, whether or not the visit was choreographed for the Flagler delegation to see only the best of what uniforms can do in a school district, the delegation also saw with its own eyes, and heard with its own ears, that there is a very large gulf between what people will call a “uniform policy” in the abstract and how it is implemented on the ground, not only in a different district, but in each different school.

Osceola has a dress code, not a uniform policy, and a dress code that’s not too far from Flagler’s. In Osceola, the biggest problem by far, says Rhinehart, is not push back from parents, which was “negligible” even the first year. It’s not students who refuse to go along. Most do. It’s students who don’t tuck their shirts in. That’s the problem “by far. A million times. Exponentially,” Rhinehart says, and from the looks of it at her school, that part of the policy is not enforced. Many teachers and administrators recognize the self-conscious aspect of tucking in, especially for fatter students: it’s a subtle, added humiliation they’d rather not impose.

It was also clear that whatever adaptation was necessary in Osceola took place faster than school officials anticipated. The feared walk-outs and sit-ins and outright refusal to comply didn’t take place. Osceola officials were surprised when a Flagler official asked if there were any teachers who urged their students to “stand up for their rights.” Apparently, none did.

But the Osceola district also put on a massive PR offensive. The school board passed the policy in April and implemented it in August, but not before fliers, letters, automated calls went home, preparing the way.

Still, the questions Tucker and Pryor posed remain: is there a need, and would uniforms improve achievements? The Osceola visit did not answer the questions conclusively.

If the Flagler school board goes for uniforms, as it is likely to next week, the Osceola model will speak loudly, likely enabling Tucker and Conklin to settle the issue pragmatically while giving Fischer what he wants, at least nominally: the school district would have its new uniform policy, but it would also have the Osceola model’s flexibility, along with each school principal’s own version of additional flexibilities, especially when it comes to enforcement. T-shirts may be history, and color choices may be narrowed a little, but the majority of students may find that the changes are less than advertised, as is the case in Osceola.

Students can rest assured that even the word “uniform” is not what it used to be. It has been accessorized.

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32 Responses for “Flagler Delegation Discovers Varieties of School Uniform Experiences in Osceola Visit”

  1. palmcoaster says:

    What a waste of time and money when all that is needed is the enforcement of the current school dress code. Just the duo Dickinson-Fischer pushing for these uniforms raises my concern….wrong policy at the wrong time. Don’t they have many other priorities really important to take care off now? Who do they want to impress, or they just care to have their names memorialized in the Flagler Schools by these uniforms policy?

    • Doug Chozianin says:

      If you are suggesting that a Flagler School Official is capable of enforcing anything, think again.
      They need police in the schools to enforce civilized behavior.
      They need outside mentors to strengthen good study habits.
      They need tutors to teach reading, mathematics and science.
      They need to fire incompetent teachers, but they don’t.
      They need to close Pathways, the biggest per capita waste of money in Flagler County Schools.
      They need to establish educational excellence as the primary goal of the student.
      (Not to be all negative, they do have a successful track record of graduating unemployable youth.)

  2. Fred Peterson via Facebook says:

    The school board pays for these right? Who’s paying for new clothes?? Can everyone afford them?? Flagler has no jobs.

  3. Amy Hamal-Canna via Facebook says:

    You know what I call this Uniform Debate- Busy Work. Apparently the Board didn’t have enough to do or wasn’t making the News enough. Either way I don’t want them and am tired of hearing about them. I certainly hope they vote NO on Tuesday.

  4. Diarmuid Connolly via Facebook says:

    Maybe The Uniform Idea will help stop Bullying

  5. Mitzi Gee says:

    Thank you so much for covering this. I was invited to attend, but felt that it was going to be a waste of my time because, in my opinion, Colleen Conklin is 100% for uniforms, and is only “pretending” to be open minded about this issue. And since we know that Dickinson and Fischer are rabid about this, there really isn’t a point in going on the field trip. Nothing I could have said or done would have mattered at all. I have attended several meetings regarding the uniforms, and the one thing I keep stressing over and over again is that there is no need for a uniform policy – they simply need to clarify and enforce a dress code. I could go on and on about this – hopefully I will get a chance to speak at the Jan 17th meeting, but again – I don’t see the point in making the effort when it is clear that there are members of the school board who do not care about the opinions of the parents.

  6. Gail Turgeon Morgan via Facebook says:

    I think if they are opting for a dress code vs. uniforms, that is a good compromise! I am for uniforms but I know others may not be able to afford them. At least with the Osceola dress code, children would have a variety to wear which is similar to elementary schools in St. Augustine.

  7. Justin says:

    Stop bullying yea right,The rich kids would wear hollister and poor kids would wear wall mart, but people say it will stop yea ok,

  8. Don Hopkins via Facebook says:

    look at the pics on the other post nobody even wears them

  9. cathy says:

    What a waste of time. Leave well enough alone!

    • Layla says:

      Cathy: Well enough? What is your definition of “well enough?”

      Diarmuid Connolly: TA-DA! Tough to bully someone for dressing a certain way when you are dressed the same.

      Fred Peterson: Everyone can’t afford them. That will be worked out. But these are clothes that can be worn anywhere, not just in school. That makes good sense. And because they are not designer clothing, they are usually more reasonable as well. Also, does away with making some feel they can’t afford to wear the kool clothes. No need to steal things off other kids. All are dressed the same.

      More attention is devoted to SCHOOL.

      Doug Chozianin: I’m tired of seeing see through clothing, bra straps, bottoms (either due to short shorts or low hangers).

      I have seen schools provide uniforms like these without the accessories allowed and it worked quite well. Shirts with collars, MUST BE tucked in. Choice of shorts, skirts or slacks, not jeans. Shorts must be not more than 2 inches above the knee. All must be plain colors. Also, enclosed shoes AND SOCKS, definitely no flip flops. No spreading of foot disease that way or injuries to feet. And what I loved about this article was the Patriot closet where these items were available to all.

      What’s wrong with having standards, with dressing properly instead of looking like little gang banger wannabe’s or junior hookers? Just because Hollywood dresses that way doesn’t mean our kids should.

      And then we need some real adults to enforce the code, NO EXCEPTIONS.

  10. palmcoaster says:

    These conservatives with their privatization for profit, pushing these failing charter schools and now in a very bad economic recession, over burdening these parents with uniforms. Stop the nonsense. What does it take for those elected school board officials to hear the majority wish? As looks to me that there is an overwhelming number of people against this policy.

    • God Bless America says:

      I would say that mandatory uniforms is not a liberal or conservative issue, palmcoaster. Mandating what kids wear so that they are all on a level playing field is socialism. The United States of America is a capitalistic democracy, last time I checked. It’s what we were founded on and it’s what our constitution promises. No to uniforms!

      • Layla says:

        socialism? We’ve had uniforms and dress codes in this country for decades:

        Military, delivery companies, doctors, nurses, company employees, sports teams, airlines, ships, trains. Just imagine how they’d all look if they were allowed to wear whatever they felt like.

        It’s called discipline and responsibility.

  11. Tracy O'Hara DiGeorgio via Facebook says:

    The requirements for the new dress code, “uniforms” looks to me as if they are just trying to fancy up Flagler county schools… Collared shirts and khakis will cost more money to send our kids to school in then jeans and T shirts… There are way more important things to focus on in our district then uniforms… Who’s going to pay for these new clothes???

    • Layla says:

      Tracy, I can find this stuff a lot cheaper than you the designer clothes most buy. If kids weren’t so busy trying to create an image or outdo or bully one another, might they do better in school?

      Count me in as a parent who believes that.

  12. Liana G says:

    The Osceola School District comprises 54,124 students. Flagler’s student population is under 13,000.

    Below are the 2010/2011 grades for the “10” Osceola high schools. Keep in mind that students performance in elementary and middle school will prepare them for high school and beyond.

    What are the grades for our “3” high schools in a district with less than 13,000 students? 2 “Bs” and 1 “F”. And let’s remember that unlike Flagler, the Osceola School District WAS NOT FLAGGED for unusual test scores. In addition, Osceola county does have a high minority population in addition to areas of high poverty.

    Under the high school accountability system, all Osceola high schools earned an “A” or “B” for the 2010/2011 school year:

    Four high schools (40%) improved from a “B” to an “A”:

    Gateway High
    Osceola High
    Harmony High
    St. Cloud High

    Four high schools (40%) maintained an “A”:

    Celebration High
    The Osceola County School for the Arts
    New Dimensions Charter

    Two high schools (20%) maintained a “B”:

    Liberty High
    Poinciana High

    I guess setting high standards are aiming too high for this district. Pierre, check out the funky socks the students at Eton are allowed to wear, but I think only on certain occasions.

  13. Mitzi Gee says:

    One thing I find very odd, is that the meeting I last spoke at – Dec 7th – is still not up on the school board website – I wonder why they won’t let this video be shown prior to this vote. ???

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve noticed that too, Mitzi. I really wanted to watch that because I couldn’t attend. I watched online live but missed the first 25 minutes, the part I really wanted to see. Could’ve done without the fashion show, oy.

  14. JUST WONDERING says:


  15. Rain says:

    The word “uniform” implies everyone looks the same, doesn’t it? None of the kids in the picture look the same. Waste of time and money on the field trip. I think an enforceable dress code makes more sense for everyone.

  16. IML8 says:

    I have mixed feelings regarding the more laxed uniform but I am in full support of uniforms. I have taught both in schools with and without uniforms and no doubt when uniforms are in place it really does make a difference. I can honestly say when teaching in a school which had uniforms I use to dread the days that the students could pay to wear jeans. Those day were just chaos. Many schools on Fridays will allow teachers to dress down…even on those days I would see a difference in student behavior towards me. Uniforms may not be a major issue but it may minimize other issues so that the major issues can be addressed. A stricter uniform policy gives the students a sense of unity…like a team. I am keeping my fingers crossed as I know it will make my mornings getting this kids ready for school easier and for me it will save our family money.

  17. Judy V says:

    Liana G – I always enjoy reading your thoughtful posts. While the school grade information is interesting, I don’t really see how it correlates to uniform wearing. Obviously, you are trying to make the point that the uniforms make the students perform better. I’d need more information. Further, the school grade information is pretty useless. I’m pretty sure when one of my children graduated from FPC, the school’s grade was a “D”. There is no place on a college application to put your high school’s grade.

    I just think we need to focus on preparing our students for college and/or careers. Instead of having a “dress-down” day – have a “dress-up” day. Teach the students how to dress properly for a job interview, scholarship interview, etc. Let’s be practical.

  18. Nancy Nally says:

    Multiple board members have admitted that they are fully aware that more families will require help clothing their children, especially this first year, under a school uniform policy than currently need it with no uniform policy in place.

    Setting aside the issue of whether there are better things to do with our community’s money and time than handing out EVEN MORE clothes than we already have to…I’d like to ask this one thing of the school board members who will have to vote on this:

    How many of you have ever been in the position of having to ask for help to pay your family’s bills, to provide for your child? Do you have ANY idea how humiliating that is, what a failure it makes you feel like to not be able to provide for basic needs for your child?

    Because BY YOUR OWN ADMISSION if you put a uniform policy in place, you will be subjecting parents who could otherwise have provided clothing for their children on their own, to that pain and humiliation of having to ask for help from others to take care of their children. Those dark feeling weigh on a parent and can become quite a burden on the whole household.

    And all of that for what the photos and reports from Osceola County prove are no benefit. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT to people when you don’t have to? It’s just mean.

    • Layla says:

      Many items of clothings are already being provided to these students, with parents permission. This is not a uniform, it is an enforced dress code requirement. As a parent, I’d welcome that. No more arguing about wardrobe either when shopping or in the mornings when she leaves for school.

      I think you will find it makes things easier and cheaper for you in the long run. And your child will no longer have to worry how she/he looks.

      • God Bless America says:

        Layla, some of us are able to parent without arguing. Ever see “The Ten Commandments”? “So let it be written, so let it be done.” Things will be easier for YOU with mandatory uniforms because you can’t put your foot down. There’s no arguing in my house ever. My kids don’t worry how they look. They dress appropriately and we go to school. Period.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I agree Nancy, This is just ridiculous that the board want this, Parents make sure you voice is herd tuesday or guess who will be suffering, The Tax Payers

  20. Don says:

    Kids, just don’t wear them of they if they pass it, the same thing Is going to happen hear we can’t let the school bord pass this please everyone speak up.

  21. IML8 says:

    School Uniforms will save families money… I just found a fantastic deal on Plus size girls (hard to find sizes and very expensive usually) uniform shorts…$2.79 a pair (Navy blue or Khaki)…and they are Dockers. It comes down to smart shopping.

    • Nancy N says:

      Why do you have to be buying uniform clothing to save money through smart shopping? Parents can save money by shopping smart under the current dress code…and they aren’t limited to the sales and specials on certain colors and styles.

    • Layla says:

      Told you! It IS cheaper! And when you ask stores to carry these items in mass, it really brings the price down.

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